The transcendent moments spent at Phillips Southampton in front of iconic Clyfford Still and David Hockney paintings could only be bettered by owning them. That opportunity will be available at Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on December 7, online and in Manhattan. With Phillips beautifully ensconced in Southampton, serious art has finally met its proper home. And East End art worshippers have a new cathedral. We were awed by the rare multi-million dollar paintings available on view to the casual shopper and consummate collector alike.
Following their clients to the Hamptons makes sense. When investments become uncertain, those who live behind-the-hedges turn, more than ever, to blue chip art. “For the most part, that is happening now,” Robert Manley, Phillips’ Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, told us. The December 7 sale is predicted to “be one of the highest total sales we’ve ever had, in excess of $110 million. And we’ve regularly been having very successful auctions.”
Jamie Niven, who, like so many, moved to his Southampton home to ride out the pandemic, joined us as we lingered in front of the Clyfford Still. Niven is Senior Advisor to Phillips’ Chief Executive Officer Edward Dolman and is often present, sitting with the art. This Still, PH-407, painted in 1964, is exceptionally rare. After 1951, with few exceptions, the artist stopped selling for fear of selling out. He even berated estranged friend Mark Rothko for his Four Seasons commission. Today, most of Still’s greatest works, hidden from the public in his life, are displayed as he intended, as a piece, in the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
Yet, in 1969, strapped for funds, Still released 35 paintings to the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. Seven works were included from the post 1961 period, when he painted in seclusion in bucolic Maryland, hiding and hoarding his masterpieces.
PH-407, in excess of $17 million, is only one of three paintings from that prolific time to have ever come on the market. “It’s staggering to look at,” Niven commented, joining us as we took it in. “I used to see it many times over the years, at an old friend’s house. It was in his private collection for decades. He and his wife were very generous about having people come to see it.”
Looking at the flames that shot up into a purposely brush-stroked black expanse, we understood Still’s off-quoted comment: “You can turn the lights out. The paintings all carry their own fire.”
“They’re meant to be these abstract dramas,” said Manley, “not illustrational in any way. But to me, they are spirit lights flaming in the sky into this fiert painterly background. I personally find it very moving. You get lost in its scale.”
We moved onto the Hockney, Nichols Canyon, expected to fetch in the $35 million range. Anyone who has negotiated the Hollywood Hills recognizes the curving road that divides — and unites — the picture. The road was, in fact, Hockney’s daily commute from his new home atop the Canyon to his studio.
“Arguably this is most impressive and historically important of Hockney’s landscapes,” Manley said. “It’s one of these drop-dead, gorgeous paintings that doesn’t need too much explanation. It has Hockney’s playful side, the glorious use of color, the way in which he creates depth and a flat plane at the same time. You don’t have to study art history to fall in love with this.”
“Hockney is a rarity, in that he is a household name in his native England but also an icon of his adopted California. One of the reasons the market for him is so strong is that he has a very broad and deep international audience of Asians, Americans and Europeans. We’re expecting a lot of interest in this painting.
“Hockney didn’t want to sell it, but a dealer teased it out of him,” Manley continued, reminding us of Still’s story. “He found something he wanted more than the painting and they worked it out.” That was a Picasso canvas. New York dealer André Emmerich traded it for Nichols Canyon and a second Hockney.
Manley took me upstairs, where Phillips likes to host guest curators. A Good Show For Strange Times: Curated by Vito Schnabel was up, featuring works by Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Pat Steir and Robert Nava. Phillips also plans to use the space for events and performance art, streamed for now.
Walking downstairs, Manley looked around and beamed. “With its natural light, 8,000 square feet of well-divided space, storage and a 50 car parking lot, the building is a dream come true as an art space,” he said. It’s no surprise, Phillips is enjoying great community support. “Right now, we have a commitment though next fall,” said Manley. “Perhaps, beyond.”
Phillips Southampton is located at 1 Hampton Road in Southampton. For more information, visit www.phillips.com.